A labour of love, the Mountain of Tongues is a musical collective founded by two music lovers – Ben Wheeler and Stefan Williamson. Tima Ouzden talks to them about their travels around the Caucasus, its rich and diverse musical traditions, and the first Caucasus All Frequency Festival, taking place this July in Georgia
It was the 10th century geographer Al-Mas’udi who first nicknamed the Caucasus the Mountain of Tongues (jabal al-alsun), referring to the incredible linguistic diversity of the region. It was this name that inspired Ben Wheeler and Stefan Williamson, to found their musical collective (obviously named Mountain of Tongues) in 2012, after bonding over their shared appreciation of Caucasian guitar music.
I first meet Wheeler and Williamson during a well-attended talk (and an evening that included spontaneous al fresco Georgian polyphonic singing) at the Russian arts and culture hub, the Calvert Foundation in East London. Attendees happily queued for khachapuri and wine (staples of Georgian cuisine) while we waited for the conversation between Liza Premiyak of the Calvert Journal and the founders of musical collective Mountain of Tongues to begin.
Williamson, who is currently working on his anthropology PhD at University College of London, first found himself interested in the Caucasus through the films of legendary Russian director Sergei Parajanov. Wheeler, meanwhile, an ethnomusicologist and musician himself, followed his interest in learning more about the chonguri (a traditional Georgian string instrument) all the way to State Conservatory Tbilisi, where he is now based.
The idea to set up Mountain of Tongues was sparked during a visit to Georgia’s Marneuli district. Here, the duo began conducting recordings of its local musicians and it was this exercise that brought to their attention the diversity of unrecorded musical traditions that exist across the region, and galvanized them to dedicate their time and efforts to recording, preserving and disseminating the uniqueness of musical dialects in the Caucasus.
”Music from everywhere has its own unique aspects, histories, and stories to tell,” they explain, “and music from the Caucasus is particularly unique in the ways it functions on so many levels: small communities have their own traditions; regions have their own styles and practices; instruments like the duduki in Georgia, and the balabanin Azerbaijan (both woodwind instruments) point to a shared musical history of the Caucasus.”
Wheeler and Williamson also choose to use the term “musical dialects” to point to the linguistic diversity of the region and steer away from genre characterizations based on nationality such as ‘Georgian music’ or ‘Azerbaijan music’ and so on. They aim to illustrate, for example, how Azerbaijanis in Georgia play music that is linked both to their ethnicity and the country in which they reside as well as the array of religious and ethnic minorities that can be found throughout the North and South Caucasus.
With that in mind, Wheeler and Williamson decided to launch Caucasus All Frequency, an online music journal that allows them to incorporate field recordings and music examples into an interactive text.
Caucasus All Frequency’s (CAS) modus operandi is one of total inclusivity, which challenges exclusory narratives of music genres and ethnicities and highlights how tightly music is woven into everyday life in the Caucasus. An important element of CAS isthe diversity of its contributors, whose work challenge dualities present in the region via music: the urban and rural, the modern versus traditional, the ethnic and national and so on. In doing so, they emphasize complexity and crossover of music in the Caucasus.
Their next big undertaking is the Caucasus All Frequency Festival, which is taking place from 5 – 15 July this year, in Omalo, Tusheti, Georgia. The Festival was created to allow an exchange between local musicians, performing what is common perceived as “traditional’ music, and a generation of experimental musician and independent record labels. This cross-pollination illustrates the primary goal of the Caucasus All Frequency Festival: how local music can be preserved, shared and popularized. The first edition of the festival will see participants from North and South Caucasus collaborating and experimenting with musicians from France, Russia, Canada, Germany and the USA.
In the future, Mountain of Tongues would like to continue to broaden the Caucasus All Frequency journal, adding more contributors and building a strong community of musicians, anthropologists and musicologists as well as other practitioners and music aficionados from across the region and beyond, all who can collaborate on creative projects and research.
They would also like to continue to make recordings (like the Mountains of Tongues album released in 2013). On top of their future wish list is a trip to Baku, where they hope to make an album dedicated to local electric guitarists – one of the main reasons the two of them met, after all, and that Mountain of Tongues came into being.
Images courtesy of Mountain of Tongues